Reading: Ephesians 3:5-6
Tell me, what is the difference between Christmas and Epiphany?
Say to any Christian: “It’s Christmas next week!” and they will know exactly what you mean. Say to most other Christians: “It’s Epiphany next week!” and they will mostly look blankly at you.
Funny thing is that the festival of Epiphany was celebrated long before Christmas was ever thought of. Historically speaking, Christmas – at least as we know it – is actually quite a recent development.
We might have assumed Christmas was one of the oldest Christian festivals there was, but actually all of the great traditions we associate with Christmas only came along in the mid 1800s. The singing of Christmas carols was only revived around then. The Christmas tree only became popular in the British Empire after it was introduced to England by Prince Albert – the German born consort of Queen Victoria. Sending Christmas cards and giving gifts has only gradually become popular from around the turn of last century. And Father Christmas – the fat happy man in the red and white suit – only became highly popular in his present form in the 1950s.
Christmas as a festival was first celebrated only towards the end of the period of the early church, when a Christian Roman Emperor wanted to Christianise a pagan Roman festival called Saturnalia. Because this festival happened in the calendar fairly close to Epiphany, it was nominated as a festival specifically celebrating the birth of Jesus. And it grew from there and has gradually taken over from Epiphany ever since.
But Epiphany started as a festival of the Christian Church. The word Epiphany means “disclosure or revelation or unveiling”, and the purpose of the festival was to celebrate not just the event of Jesus’ birth, but what it actually means for the world; what its significance and importance is.
And this is exactly what Paul was on about in this reading from Ephesians 3 – the revelation or unveiling of God’s great plan for the redemption of the whole world. This is more than just the Bethlehem story. This is more than shepherds and angels and the manger and the star in the East. Epiphany is the whole unfolding of God’s wonderful through Jesus, including the baptism of Jesus (that we will celebrate next Sunday), his miracles, his healings, his teaching, his cross and his resurrection, and importantly, his ascension.
This unfolding plan does not just take place in New Testament times, but also throughout the whole Old Testament. Jesus Christ is not just the last phase of God’s plan. He is the key to the whole thing. The arrival of God’s Son in the world as a human being is the key that unlocks and reveals and makes clear and explains the whole mystery of God’s plan that has been unfolding ever since the dawn of creation. The birth of Jesus is the great epiphany – the last piece in the jigsaw that suddenly makes the other pieces fall into place, the final drawing away of the veil that reveals at last what you could only see vague hints of before.
Paul says “in former generations this mystery has not been made known to humanity, as it has now been revealed to His holy prophets and apostles by the Spirit”.
Jesus is the key that unlocks what God has been doing for all these millennia: the Son of God in human form. He is the only and the perfect redeemer for the world. The human race has been lost in sin, and its ultimate result, which is death. The only answer to this plague is one who can deal with our sin and with death and conquer them finally through his own death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins. The only answer is in the one who shares God’s divine nature and power to break the death-grip of sin, and who also truly shares our human nature in order to truly take on himself our sin and our death and release us for eternal life.
This is the final opening up, the final epiphany of what God is doing – hidden and secret from past ages, but made clear now in Christ. Read the Gospel readings for the rest of the Epiphany season and you see how Jesus progressively throughout his ministry unfolds the reality of who he is and what he is doing, through miracles and signs and teaching, and finally of course through the ultimate climax of the eternal plan; his passion, death and resurrection.
Here at last is the fulfilment of everything the prophets have been saying in ages past, the completion of the Old Testament’s story, the salvation and restoration not just of Israel, but (as Paul says in verse 6) of all the nations (the Gentiles) as well, including us of course. This is the Gospel – the good news for the whole planet.
And this season of Epiphany is a great time to read the Bible and learn and grow in your understanding of this amazing Gospel and how it unfolds through time. And I would like to invite you to do just that – look ahead and read the Bible readings listed for this season. It will open up your understanding.
Christmas is wonderful, but one of the things that becomes a problem for us in the church at Christmas time is that we tend to lose our focus a bit – it’s all become very cuddly and cosy in the stable. And we tend to get stuck at Bethlehem. We see the babe lying in a manger. We hear the story of the journey to Bethlehem and the shepherds visited by angels and told to go to Bethlehem and the wise men coming to Bethlehem. And so at Christmas time we too go to Bethlehem, and sadly many Christians stay there and never leave. This story warms us and tugs at our heart strings. But there’s more isn’t there. We need to leave the stable and move on to Epiphany.
Why was Jesus born? As one carol puts it, Jesus was “born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth: born to give them second birth”.
Epiphany takes us further than Bethlehem. It does not leave us at the manger; it takes us also to the cross, where our sins were paid for once and for all. It takes us to the empty tomb where Jesus Christ rose to give eternal life to all people. It takes us – each of us – to the place of our “second birth”, to the baptismal font, where we Jesus makes his forgiveness and salvation ours.
And this is where Epiphany happens in each of our individual lives. This is where the manger and the cross and the empty tomb all converge to change our individual personal destinies. This is where we meet Jesus. This is where he reveals his plan for our lives, His plan to forgive and renew and recreate us for this life and the next
And Jesus reveals God’s plan for us every time we return to our baptism by confessing our sins and receiving His forgiveness, every time we come to receive His body and blood, every time we open and read and hear His Word.
Jesus is at work in our life everyday. Your life is in fact a mini-Epiphany, because His grand plan for us is unfolding in our life minute by minute. Jesus is calling us to grow in our knowledge of him and in our relationship with him, calling us to grow and to move and to serve, and more and more reveal his light to others around us, his we become more like him, as our lives reveal and unveil him to the eyes of others.
And so it’s time to leave Bethlehem. It’s time for Epiphany. Because Jesus Christ wants to reveal his plan for saving the world not only to us, but through us to the whole world.
Pastor Stephen Pietsch